just the same as the others. Empty, for packing. You know, company moving boxes." I
twisted the phone cord through my fingers.
"I dont get it, Jimmy. Why?"
Fiona was hearing about my box-on-the-doorstep
phenomenon for the first time.
"Who knows? Who cares?" I was getting used
to the boxes. This was the third day. Theyd all been placed on my front porch
sometime before seven p.m.
"You know you care. You cant stand
mysteries or surprises." Fiona has known me off and on for five years. The first year
we were lovers, and since then shes been my critical friend, critic and friend,
whatever. We were pretty sure that our respective spouses didnt know of our history
together. At least, I was sure anyway. Until this week Id thought that my marriage
to Susan was fairly secure.
"Well, Ill save them. I can put them in the
"Good idea. Practical. Poor Jimmy, such
I picked up on that trace of sympathy, however weak or
"Why dont you come over," I said to
Fiona. "You could look at the latest box, compare it to the others, check it out with
"Weve been through this, Jimmy. Im
not checking out anything with you. It sounds like you better resolve things with
This was Thursday.
On Monday my wife had left me. Not with drama and a
fight, shed just left me a note. Every day since then an empty box had arrived on
the doorstep while I was out at work.
I didnt tell Fiona about the note. She
wasnt mentioned. Maybe Im wrong but I didnt think it would make a
difference. It wouldnt persuade her to comfort an abandoned ex-lover neighbor. Most
of the time Susan and Fiona are best friends, with occasional vitriolic lapses.
Thats when I offer two sympathetic ears.
On the previous Sunday Susan and I had been at a big
party. The whole neighborhood, lounging around someones pool. Lots of booze and
joking. The only weird thing was Fionas stepson. Her husband Greg has custody of his
mentally retarded son, Billy, aged twelve. Its a difficult situation. Fiona wants a
child but shes scared to have one. Greg held the kid on a kind of dog leash near the
pool because he cant swim.
Susan and I dont have kids. The problem is my
innards not hers. We gave up trying. Im vocal about the personal freedoms we still
have instead. Yeah, right! Like the freedom to walk away from each other? To disappear
after leaving a note?
Id fallen asleep the minute we came home that
Sunday night, and on Monday I was out of the house as usual at the crack of dawn. Susan
was either asleep when I blew a kiss to her, or she was making a good pretence of slumber.
By now I know not to wake her prematurely. So I didnt observe any frostiness.
This week my companys in a trade show at the
Javits Center. Im in website security. I have to bring in new business to get paid,
but Ive been promised equity. Weve burned up a lot of venture capital money
and this is the make or break event for us.
I really didnt need the stress of an empty house
to come home to, with Susans ultimatum on a 3x5 file card. She loves them.
Everything gets put on the same sized cards. She says theyre handy for diet
flowcharts and stuff. Plus they fit in her purse. I bet she took a supply with her
wherever shes gone.
| Ill be back when
youve figured out the latest way you insulted me. If you cant remember that,
youre too insensitive to bother with any more.
guessed the Love part was conditional, or maybe as meaningful as I love
I ordered in pizza with mushrooms and pepperoni.
Its awkward trying to find out where your wife
has gone, especially if shes left home because of something youve done,
or not done. Susan had gone off before, but only for a long drive to clear the air, to
reassess realities, to shop til she dropped. But always back the same day or night.
She owns so many clothes and pieces of luggage that there were no obvious clues like
glaring gaps in the closets.
By ten p.m. Id hit a difficult time because I
wanted to contact everyone who knows her, but it was getting late to call. Her parents are
dead and she has no sibs. I made conversation with a couple of people who would have
enjoyed telling me something if they knew anything, without me asking. One of her best
friends actually asked me to put Susan on the phone but I said shed gone to bed with
The next morning I had a revelation about where she
might be staying. A spa upstate shed always raved about. For years shed used
the glossy brochure as a bedside coaster where it accumulated moisture rings. It
wasnt there now.
The local police were very helpful in guiding my
thoughts towards positive explanations. I was surprised, considering the images of cynical
cops in the media. Hanging up after talking with the duty policewoman, I was convinced
nothing bad had happened to Susan.
The Spa Unsagbar had received lots of good press and
was riotously expensive. Wed joked about the German name which meant beyond
words. It was also beyond our budget.
I wondered what Susan was using for money. Wed
maxxed out on everything except my corporate American Express card. She might have found
an unused promotional Visa or MasterCard around the house that could be scanned without
All day Tuesday at the Javits I answered inane
questions without meeting a single qualified prospect. The booth was state-of-the-art and
prime space cost a fortune.
When I got home the second empty box lay on the
doorstep. There was no wrapping or label, just the logo from a franchised transport
company. Some sort of follow-up clue from Susan? A cockeyed non-verbal message about
moving stuff? Hers or mine?
Id already called Spa Unsagbar that morning. The
policy of these fitness fascists was to take messages.
"We cannot confirm whether anyone is here...or
not here. Privacy is paramount at Unsagbar."
"But youll make sure she gets the message.
That is, if she is there with you."
"Of course, sir."
"But what if its an emergency? Just in
"We will use our discretion, sir. You may leave
phone, fax and email contacts with me."
"What if I come up there?"
It wasnt so far away. I figured Susan obviously
could make it down and back to leave a box during the day. Id have enough time in
"We still would not confirm whether the lady is a
It pissed me off that he kept changing my
wife to the lady. What the hell, was this guy denying me my marriage?
There were phone messages from three of Susans
friends, and one from my mother in Florida. There was absolutely no point in calling my
mother, the source of our cash flow for months. Shed tell me I was forty and too
thin. Shed remind me what a good provider my father had beenbefore
corporate credit cards.
Susan could be notoriously unsociable about returning
calls, so I just noted these on a 3x5 card and cleared the tape. There were two more
messages, from ultra polite collection agents, but we never bother writing those down for
Mango shrimp from the Chinese takeout.
Wednesday was a blur. I caught a live one at the show, a genuinely needy corporation in
deathly fear of hackers. The Tech VP knew our favorite existing customer and he wanted to
get set up immediately. I made arrangements to meet him for dinner. Over splendid salmon,
voluptuous veal and childhood-invoking chocolate cake we agreed that his companys
team of code crunchers would get a demo at our booth the next day.
I really wanted to share this news of even a tentative
sale with Susan. Around six p.m. I tried the Spa again, figuring that Id get someone
different. I did, but he was reading from the same script.
When I arrived home, there was another box on the
doorstep. Maybe it was some sort of clue to my insulting behavior that had driven Susan
away, but an intelligent connection didnt spring to mind. Empty Soul or
Cardboard Heart? I figured I just had to physically be at the house when Susan
delivered the box. I read her note for the umpteenth time.
Also, I wanted to supervise a house clean-up team that
I could pay for on the corporate card through our concierge service.
My boss, Dudley, had phoned.
Before I returned the call I rehearsed my plea for
immediate time off and then I reached him at home.
"Are you kidding?" He was spluttering. It
reminded me of the only time Id got jocular with him and called him Dud.
"Its the only chance for your office, Jimmy
baby," he said, after denying my request. "Hell, man, I put you in charge of the
Northeast. That trade show is the last shot. Of course theres nobody else who
could do it. You want me to trust some hired booth bimbo, shaking her implants at horny
In less stressful times I would have said yes, joking
with him, but this was crunch time for Dudley and me. Hed personally signed off on
the loans, and I hadnt seen a paycheck in almost a year. We were both surviving on
the long-term hope of lucrative stock options after some future public offering.
The man would not want to know about Susan enjoying
Spa Unsagbar. He would probably have something to say about empty boxes though. Something
similar to the message that I assumed Susan was leaving for me, something goofy, like
"Youre empty, youre rectangular and inanimate, you should move out."
Dudley might have enjoyed the story of Fiona, my
philandering fling of four years ago. But I hadnt been dumb enough to confide. Fiona
used sex as a weapon. Somehow I was proud of knowing this. It had made our games more fun,
our suburb more exciting. At least it did for me, I dont know about her.
Anyway, Dudley is gay. I didnt want to think
about his sex-as-weapon problems. And I had to deal with the guy, seriously, no jokes,
banter or buddy stuff. He was right. I needed to be there at the show; this week was key.
Dudley certainly would not want to know about our Aunt
Gretchen from Cleveland. Aunt Gretchen, Susans only living relative in the whole
wide world, was about to make her annual inspection tour of the Susan/Jim household
starting this Friday evening.
Weekend Aunt Gretchen Requirements: red carpet, house
spick and span, heavy duty cooking. And this year no hostess in sight.
Aunt Gretchen is a municipal child abuse investigator.
Shes someone I admire and enjoy entertaining. Im also slightly in awe of her.
If I called her to cancel, shed just be nosy and arrive earlier.
Susan is a responsible person, prompt about all
obligations except bills and returning phone calls. Surely she wouldnt have
forgotten the upcoming visit. I assumed that shed be coming back home on Friday
morning. Susan would at least communicate with me, or with her aunt, or both of us.
Thats what I hoped, willed, and wished upon a star.
On Thursday I got organized. The clean-up crew was
hired for early the next morning, and they guaranteed to be finished by eleven. Short
notice, double-sized team, but they accepted the Amex card.
The corporate prospect sent in his guys to the Javits.
We made a good demo, and I felt confident about nailing the deal.
As Id made the decision to take off Friday, it
was critical to arrange coverage for the booth. I gave our three most presentable office
staff a quick lesson in meeting and greeting. This would be blanket coverage for the show,
and I promised them superior performance reviews.
Dudley screamed and threatened, but I was firm. A rare
win for family values over crass commercial considerations.
When I got home that night I was actually happy to see
the latest box on the doorstep. This was the evening I weakened, called Fiona and
shed sensibly refused to come over and comfort me. I asked her how things were going
with Greg, and she deflected me.
"I dont think this is the time for an
analysis of my marriage, Jim."
I plowed on. "Its kind of like
assisted living, isnt it."
"Thats really amusing." I could
imagine her lip curling as she said it. "Your marriage or mine?"
"Good question. I guess I mean mine, since you
dont answer questions about yours these days."
I was on the kitchen phone, flipping through a book of
recipes looking for something simple. "I feel that I know you so well. I can talk to
you about anything. We should meet somewhere, right now." Apart from being with her,
the idea of eating out was appealing.
She cut me off. "You wouldnt like my
answers to your questions anyway. I have to go. Its my turn to read Billy his
Her mention of Billy made me realize there was a
similarity in our marriages. It was unsettling to think of the wives commiserating with
each other. Both so badly wanted to procreate. Fiona didnt dare get pregnant because
of Gregs faulty genes. Susan was so desperate that right now she might be frolicking
with some athletic Aryan -- in between trips back to our homestead to deposit moving boxes
for me. Me, who would be happy with either or both ladies.
The mail was all bills and brochures. I dealt with
Susans messages. There was nothing for me. Dudley had phoned and hissed his
I thought that Id remembered from college days
how to make an omelet. Ah well, the clean-up crew would deal with the yolky splatter. I
found some ham-enhanced split pea soup and the can opener.
Friday brought a bright clear day and the weather
forecast predicted a great weekend. By eleven, the cleaners trucks had pulled out.
The house smelled minty. There were fresh flowers in the vases, and every environmental
surface was tidy and sparkling clean.
By noon Id been firedby phone.
Dudley didnt want to hear my plea that the last day of a trade show was dead time.
He didnt care that my bright new prospect was nearly in the bag. And he was deaf to
my praises of the social skills of the staff Id sent over to the Javits Center.
By two oclock in the afternoon I was so
impatient I was talking back to the moronic soap opera characters on the TV in my living
room. Ironically, I had answers for all their problems.
The only activity in the street was Fionas
stepson, Billy, riding his bike with the training wheels. Round and round the cul-de sac
he went. I could see the saliva glistening on his big wet grin. The kid waved vigorously
to me every time I went outside to see if a new box was on the step.
I called the Germans. "Sir, how could we tell you
if someone has checked out if we can not confirm whether the lady was staying here at
all?" Unassailable logic, but it did not endear the Spa staff to me.
I mowed the lawn. Id even considered hiring
young Billy for this task so I could listen for the phone, but I thought we might end up
with grassy crop circles.
At five p.m. a taxi turned into the driveway. Aunt
Gretchen had arrived. She gave me a quick peck and a frown.
"Hello, you wretched man." She shook her
finger at me. "I know. Susan called me. Shell be here at seven." I sighed,
"Whats the smell in here, toothpaste?"
Aunt Gretchen wrinkled her nose. "Open some windows will you. We have two hours to
figure out that insult."
"Oh. She didnt tell it to you?" This
was fiendish. Every week they talked for an hour or more.
"That would make it too easy for you, Jim.
Shes pretty mad."
I nodded and made some coffee. Making coffee is one of
my well-honed household skills. Aunt Gretchen settled into the chair that I usually use.
"Lets start with every conversation you had
with Susan over the last month."
"And with anyone else in her presence."
"Or where Susan might have overheard you, even
though you didnt see her."
This was worse than Dudley doing employee exit
By six pm I was standing looking out at the street,
watching Fionas husband Greg drag his screaming son home by the handlebars. Aunt
Gretchen and I had recapped most of the conversations. Not a clue.
"So you dont like being home alone, hey,
"No. I really miss her. Its like an
ache." I filled up her coffee mug.
Aunt Gretchen patted my shoulder as she went past me
to get more sugar.
"OK, Jim, Ill admit it. I do know
"But you still have to guess it."
"Well, its in the conversations. Weve
covered it. Ill do the hot and cold game thing with you."
Susan would be proud of her.
It turned out to be something Id said at the
pool party. Id been in a small group that included Fiona. Susan had been nearby.
Fiona and I had been discussing Rio beaches. The talk had come around to Brazilian bikinis
called dental floss or something. Fiona claimed that she had a couple, and I said that
Susan would never wear such a thing/thong, whatever.
"Please note," I said to Aunt Gretchen,
"I did not say that Susan couldnt wear such a thing."
"Damage done, my friend. You were dog doo after
We rambled on about cellulite, middle age and other
riveting topics and at seven Susans car pulled in. I hurried out and opened the car
door for her.
"You look SUPER... and you could go Brazilian any
"Hah." She snorted, throwing back her hair
as she got out of the car. "Bet she had to tell you."
We walked to the front door. "Do I really look
super? You mean, like different?"
"You certainly do."
I was sincere but avoided volunteering specifics.
Finding out what constituted a Susan-directed insult had wrecked my confidence in my
powers of observation and sensitivity. Not totally though. Hey, Id picked up on her
need for my approval.
"Yes, you look really great." I took the
grocery bags out of her trunk.
"Well, it cost a bundle. The new Visa card worked
when I arrived, but not at check out. And I wasnt about to give them my only cash.
That was for tips, gas and these groceries."
"What did you do?" I hoisted the last bag
Here we were working together on something, even if it was just unloading the car.
"Gave them all your company information and said
youd be in touch." She grinned at me. We were companions, conspirators against
I gulped, nodding bravely. This was not the right
moment to tell her about my job loss.
"I really didnt give a shit." She
shrugged. "I mean, what were they going to do? Tie me down and give me back the
"Good for you." I hugged her and we went
into the house.
I made strong gin and tonics. We caught up on news,
swapping war stories, battles of work and workouts. I plucked up courage and told them
Id been fired. It was easier to say with Aunt Gretchen there. Incredibly, she and
Susan both laughed.
They reminded me that this was by no means the first
"Dudley will do his usual whine, whine, whine.
Hell call this Sunday evening, during 60 Minutes, all groveling, and calling
you Jimmy baby. Yuck!" Susan puckered her lips. "And youll lap
it up. Anyway, hell need you to follow up on that new prospect you were just telling
They were right. Deep down Id known this even
during Show week, but I probably wanted to feel sorry for myself.
Susan reclaimed her kitchen territory and admired the
"Here, Jim. I know you can do this." She
handed me a bottle of Australian Shiraz. "Open it, so that it can breathe properly
before we eat."
"Okay." I peeled off the foil wrapper around
the top of the bottle. "By the way, I have a question."
Susan looked a bit wary. I wondered if I should have
waited until after dinner. "Yes?" she said.
"What was with the boxes?" I smiled.
"You know. The empty moving boxes on the doorstep
each day." She looked blankly at me. "Theyre in the garage now."
"Whyre you asking me?"
"You brought them, didnt you?"
"No, of course not. Remember, I was upstate being
tortured by nubile Nazis!"
Aunt Gretchen chuckled. Then she looked as puzzled as
"Come on, it was..."
"No. Really, Jim. Wait a minute though... are the
boxes from National Packhorse?"
"Yes. So you know about them?"
"Its that kid! Billy. Last week he dropped
boxes at the Corrigans and the week before at Kutskys. Hes sort of
obsessive about them."
"Youre kidding." I wanted to believe
her, but why wouldnt Fiona have told me? If only to remind me again that Billy was
just her stepson. I mentioned to Susan that thered been no box on Friday and that
Billy had been riding around near our house.
She said, "You must have jinxed him by being
"Seriously," Susan continued.
"Its really driving Fiona crazy. She and Greg are putting their house on the
market, you know." She looked intently at me.
"I didnt know that. Theyre
moving?" The room felt very cold even though there was a pork loin roasting in the
oven. Susans stare seemed to be focused on my forehead. "Are you sure,
"Yeah, I guess Fiona didnt share that with
you, huh? Greg got a job in Akron."
"Akron? Akron, Ohio?" I looked out the
"And he doesnt know it yet, but she
isnt going with them." Susan jiggled the ice in her drink and winked at Aunt
"Yes. Fionas going to start a new
in an undisclosed location."
"She wants to be a Mom before its too